The largest of known Homo skulls, the Harbin cranium, in the Geoscience Museum in Hebei GEO University represents a newly discovered human species named Homo longi or “Dragon Man,” according to new research.
Qiang Ji, professor of paleontology, Hebei GEO University explained:
“The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world. This fossil preserved many morphological details that are critical for understanding the evolution of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens.”
The cranium was reportedly discovered in the 1930s in Harbin City of the Heilongjiang province of China. The massive skull could hold a brain comparable in size to modern humans’ but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and oversized teeth.
“While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously-named Homo species,” says Ji, leading to its new species designation of Homo longi.
Scientists believe the cranium came from a male individual, approximately 50 years old, living in a forested, floodplain environment as part of a small community.
“Like Homo sapiens, they hunted mammals and birds, and gathered fruits and vegetables, and perhaps even caught fish,” adds Xijun Ni,professor of primatology and paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University.
Given that the Harbin individual was likely very large in size as well as the location where the skull was found, researchers suggest H. longi may have been adapted for harsh environments, allowing them to disperse throughout Asia.
The researchers have dated the Harbin fossil to at least 146,000 years, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene, a dynamic era of human species migration.
Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Nature History Museum in London, said:
“We see multiple evolutionary lineages of Homo species and populations co-existing in Asia, Africa, and Europe during that time. So, if Homo sapiens indeed got to East Asia that early, they could have a chance to interact with H. longi, and since we don’t know when the Harbin group disappeared, there could have been later encounters as well.”
Looking farther back in time, the researchers also find that Homo longi is one of our closest hominin relatives, even more closely related to us than Neanderthals.
Their reconstruction of the human tree of life also suggests that the common ancestor we share with Neanderthals existed even further back in time.
The researchers say that findings gathered from the Harbin cranium have the potential to rewrite major elements of human evolution. Their analysis into the life history of Homo longi suggest they were strong, robust humans whose potential interactions with Homo sapiens may have shaped our history in turn.
“Altogether, the Harbin cranium provides more evidence for us to understand Homo diversity and evolutionary relationships among these diverse Homo species and populations,” says Ni. “We found our long-lost sister lineage.”
Their findings, appeared in three papers published on June 25 in the journal The Innovation, suggest that the Homo longi lineage may be our closest relatives–and has the potential to reshape our understanding of human evolution.